When Sojourner Truth was still a girl, her owners died, and she was sent to a nearby farm, separated from her parents. Her mother died and her elderly father was released into the care of another freed couple only to die alone in a shack in the woods.
New York State officially abolished slavery in 1827. It had passed a law for 'gradual abolition' by which the children of mothers who were salves would be freed after a long period of service to the master as an indentured servant.
Once freed, Sojourner Truth was not able to bring her children with her as she had no means by which to support them. To her horror, she found out that her young boy, Peter, had been sold into slavery in Alabama despite promises that he was to be apprenticed in New York City.
Alabama was experiencing a cotton boom and eager to have more slaves working its plantations. The farm work exacted from slave labor was especially harsh, with its quotas supervised by armed men, its difficult physical conditions, and complete restrictions on any personal freedom.When Alabama became a state in 1819, 30% of its population was enslaved. This population doubled in the '20s and again in the '30s. By the time of the Civil War, 45% of its population, or 435,000 people, were slaves. .
Sojourner Truth was desperate to rescue her son and found help among the Quakers. The Society of Friends, believing that all human beings had a divine inner light, were the earliest religious group in the United States to take up the cause of the civil rights of blacks, native peoples, and women. By the mid-18th century most Quakers had freed their slaves and gotten behind the abolitionist cause. Their influence pushed Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to get the Continental Congress to put the ending of the importation of slaves into the Constitution. Pennsylvania, founded by Quakers, was the strongest anti-slavery state.
With the support of Quakers, Sojourner Truth successfully brought a court case that resulted in the freeing of her son and his return to New York. This was the earliest successful case brought by a back person against a white person.
Click the videos to learn more about Quakers and slavery and an interview with the modern biographer of Sojourner Truth.
For materials documenting legal cases argued in courts in the United States and Great Britain on the issue of slavery go to: